Friday, August 14, 2009


What is filmmaking for the most part if not hustling? There is always a bit of lying, cheating, manipulating and thieving in trying to get the purest, the best, the most impactful, the most compelling images, whether documentary or fiction. In recent years, we've all cottoned on to this fact and so we don't trust the camera in the way that people might once have done so.

I am a huge fan of street photography from mid last century. People like Walker Evans and Helen Levitt (deep thanks to Ross Gibson for putting me onto Ms Levitt)and many, many later photographers who took their work as inspiration were engaged in a project that was equal parts visual poetry and social incision. People trusted them. But, not any longer.

I saw Helen Levitt's film In The Street which she made with the impossibly brilliant James Agee some years ago while working at ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image). For a few brief years, before they sent the toecutters in, a group of us were able to curate and write and programme for films and the moving image galleries in a way that really felt like something. A few brave souls continue to do so still. During those years I saw films (on film! flickering away on a projector in the back of the collections library) and videos by people like Peter Hutton, Matthias Mueller and Christoph Girardet, Peter Tscherkassky, Jay Rosenblatt, Joris Ivens, Sadie Benning (and the sublime O Panama by pops James Benning and Burt Barr) which blew my mind wide open. Films like Sokurov's Spiritual Voices, Gustav Deutsch's Film Ist and Jem Cohen's Buried in Light allowed me to forget my crazy love of narrative and surrender myself to all the other wonders and horrors that film makes possible.

Yet, despite how much I loved the poetic distillations of Sokurov or Deutsch or Cohen, or the crazed kinaesthetics of Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky or the purism of Peter Hutton, I always found myself drawn to the simple elegance of street cinema. Whether the latter day works of Jem Cohen and Adam Cohen or those early inspirational works by Levitt & Agee, Robert Frank et al, there was something so moving about the act of glimpsing the everyday through the camera that was both deeply moving and deeply unique to the form. No other art captures what a glance might mean cast across to the other side of the street. Or the flick of a wrist. An expectant gaze. The lilt of a walk. The simple beauty of the kind of work that someone like Helen Levitt created in turning from her stills camera to the moving image is something that it is regrettable to have lost even as I (kinda) celebrate people's increasing suspicion of their images being stolen away from them on the street.

Again, I've been thinking of this because of this crazy camera we now have in our pockets. Shooting HD on the Canon 5D feels like a renewal of poetic street photography and that strange mix of intimate images in public places seems like it might be possible again. It is a completely different visual language made possible through the lightness and immediacy of movement that you get with these cameras. I spent a long time wrestling with a bolex and shooting stuff while out and about, and the load-wind-expose-and-shoot is a brilliant discipline but is also a discipline that can never be truly intuitive or intimate. It has, inherent in it, distance and observation. The 5D on the other hand, can be truly intuitive and intimate while still using the complexities of the lens in it's relationship to the world 'out there'. Sure, it's not film but it takes a lot for a film snob to have to admit that it is getting impossible to stick to the argument about the mysteries of chemistry and the elusive qualities of light turned to celluloid. I just hope that the street photographers out there embrace these new cameras rather than all the ad' houses who seem to be at the forefront of posting their results online.

Ms Helen Levitt...

Part 1.

Part 2.

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